Reviews

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Episodes 1 & 2’ – a surreal, charming homage to comic Americana

It was never meant to begin this way.

Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.

The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.

WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY: That Hope Was You (Season 3 – Review)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd.

Mercy & Consequences: COBRA KAI (Season 3 – Review)

Dangerously close to rampant melodrama, Cobra Kai’s most anticipated season to date just about keeps its fast-moving feet on the ground.

Who knew that this YouTube originated series would turn out to be such a pop cultural success? Maybe we should have seen it coming, given how popular and beloved The Karate Kid (and to an extent its sequels) remains over 35 years on. Daniel-san and Mr Miyagi permeated the cultural consciousness of the 1980s to the same degree as Indiana Jones or the Terminator or Marty McFly. In a cheesy, all-American way, they extolled the virtue of Eastern philosophy on Western coming of age tropes, with Daniel LaRusso finding the personal balance in his life, and the martial art that developed his confidence, that allowed him to discover his way in the world. The sequels tweaked the formula but, much like the Rocky pictures of the same era, the core idea of The Karate Kid remained the touchstone.

Hence why Cobra Kai used the central conflict of that original movie as part of its concept, yet joyously flipped the script. This wasn’t a show, across the first season, that was directly about the grown-up Daniel LaRusso, the handsome All-Valley champion and wax on-wax off mentee of the sage Miyagi, but rather the teenager he bested in the final – Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai’s first principle lay in examining what happened to the loser, the kid who didn’t win the day and win the girl, and pick up The Karate Kid mythos of lost father figures around a broken, angry, disillusioned figure who re-adopts the misguided, first strike mantra of his cruel mentor and tries to use it to regain self-respect. The surprising brilliance of that first season is how we came to understand Cobra Kai as a series that introduced practical shades of grey within the delineated good/bad dichotomies of a simpler time.

While still entertaining, the series has lost a little of that as it expanded the idea, and the ensemble, into what the third season represents: fun, silly but overblown melodrama with only sparks of self-referential awareness that keep it grounded.

DOCTOR WHO – Revolution of the Daleks (TV Review)

One of the curiosities of Doctor Who is that the series is an ongoing continuum, and despite an almost two decade gap, has been so since 1963.

Characters, even Doctor’s, come and go. Unlike most other science-fiction shows such as Star Trek, which rotates casts and time periods within different stylistic eras, Doctor Who is a constant. The concept has not changed, in essence, for almost sixty years. Yet the show does not always consider the journey as opposed to the destination, given how it careers from one universe bending, shattering narrative to the next. Revolution of the Daleks chooses, amidst a traditional world-threatening story, to take that breath and wonder. To consider quite what the journey with the Doctor means, and how to appreciate it.

Chris Chibnall’s era has rightly been castigated for a lack of significant character depth or development, with rather flimsy storytelling that avoided, certainly in his first series as showrunner, long-form Steven Moffat-style narrative construction. His second year saw him try and fuse Moffat’s plotting with Russell T. Davies’ earthy bombast, with mixed success. In both cases, the show has lacked a key element that made the previous eras distinct in their own way. Davies’ managed to take Who’s dated, kitsch concept and inject a modern, American-influenced level of production, and Moffat built on those foundations to deconstruct the show as a sci-fi fairytale. Chibnall’s era, to date, has lacked that signature difference.

Until, perhaps, now. Revolution of the Daleks suggests that, possibly, Chibnall might at last be finding in Doctor Who what he wants to say.

THE MANDALORIAN: Return of the Jedi (Season 2 – Review)

A. J. Black lends his thoughts on the second season of Disney’s The Mandalorian

In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.

On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.

Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.

In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.

Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.

New Horrified Article: HORROR IN THE BRITCOM – ‘Welcome to Royston Vasey: Yule Never Leave’

New article for Horrified Magazine!

Horrified is a new kid on the block but is producing some fine work in the realm of British horror, both in terms of analysis and original fiction, so I was delighted when the editor was keen on my pitch for a recurring series called ‘Horror in the Britcom’, unpicking the intersection between horror and comedy in British sitcoms…

For this third piece, I’m talking about the terrifying Christmas special of the nightmarish comic horror series The League of Gentlemen

Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘Prelude’ (3×07 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

While on one level Prelude could appear a functional, necessary episode of Alias, it is quite stealthily both a well constructed and quite important piece, in terms of Season Three and the larger context of the show.

The word ‘prelude’ brings immediate connotations to mind, particularly in the world of music where it is frequently a means to describe the introductory opening or movement in an opera or concert or, more specifically in terms of a dictionary definition, an action that serves to introduce another event of greater importance. The first six episodes have, in that sense, served as the prelude to Prelude itself, and by default Season Three itself. J. R. Orci’s script deliberately tethers Sydney’s ongoing arc back to The Two, back to Succession, back to seeds in the very opening episodes in order to further make the point: the events of Prelude have been inevitable since the very beginning.

Prelude also continues to demonstrate how Alias has moved away from the structure that defined it across particularly the first season and a half, whereby Sydney would likely travel to at least two global locations as part of a mission in shorter bursts.

Prelude frames the first half of the episode around the Beijing mission, allows Syd one of the more protracted and technically adept fight scenes in the series, and then allows the back half of the hour to be devoted to a series of falling dominoes, revelations clicking together, and characters having to make immediate changes to their situation as the impending status quo for the next four episodes—one of Alias’ more tightly constricted and dense story arcs—stitches itself together. Prelude is the perfect title for an episode which is about payoff that informs bigger, concentrated narrative developments to come, at the expense—at points—of Alias’ house style.

Unexpectedly, it is also an hour packed with allusions, character development that foreshadows plot mechanics to come further down the line, and takes the strongest cue from its primary TV inspiration perhaps yet.

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.

Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘The Nemesis’ (3×06 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

The Nemesis reminded me of Double Agent, from Alias’ second season. Partly for picking up on threads established in that episode, but also in how it straddles serialisation and stand-alone storytelling.

While in some respects, The Nemesis diverges from the ongoing character arc for Sydney and the mythology around her missing time, in other ways it is central to everything we’ve experienced in the previous five episodes. Repercussions suggested Sydney needed to face the consequences of the two years we skipped, and the climactic beat of The Telling, after A Missing Link placed significant moral compromise in our mind about what Syd might have become, or had to become, in those missing years. The Nemesis contextualises this by framing an episode almost entirely around the lingering elements of Season Two. Crystal Nix Hines’ script is almost a sequel to both The Telling and the relentless final third of the second season as a whole, pulling us back into that paradigm after Season Three launched into a new direction. Even the final scenes of the episode contain the same music and tempo as the end of the previous year.

Yet simultaneously, it takes broader steps to what is now an inevitable confrontation between Sydney and the NSC, with Lauren’s investigation into the Lazarey murder taking significant strides in the sub-plot of this episode. Strip that away and The Nemesis could have been, for all intents and purposes, a relatively stand-alone episode that simply works at those Season Two threads, but Nix Hines does an admirable job of tying the stylistics of these two different seasons together across this hour, even if the constituent parts of Syd’s reunion with the villainous Allison Doren struggle to live up to their promise. The Nemesis is designed to serve as, essentially, the concluding beat of the season’s first act before Prelude sends us thundering into the next one.

It’s a strange balance, overall, and one that is only partially successful.

Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘Repercussions’ (3×05 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

Outside of Reunion, Repercussions probably stands as the least remarkable episode of Alias’ third season yet, operating as it does in the shadow of a far more interesting hour.

A Missing Link expressly tethered Syd’s growing panic over her moral virtue with the primary Covenant narrative and the overarching mythology of her missing time very neatly, ending on a Season One-style cliffhanger which Repercussions immediately has to resolve. We all know Vaughn isn’t dying at this stage of the series or season, and Jesse Alexander’s script has to very swiftly get him out of that life or death situation, though to the episodes credit it does not simply move on to the next mission as Season One’s pulpy tales would have done. The character inter-relationships in Alias have too much lode bearing for that to be possible these days, and part of the titular repercussions lie squarely on Syd facing the consequences of stabbing Vaughn to save his life at the close of the previous hour.

Repercussions isn’t simply about Syd’s actions, however, rather referring to the after-effects of the previous season. This hour of Alias is all about characters having to face the weight of events that took place particularly between these two seasons, and during those missing years. Not just Syd’s alias as Julia Thorne but Sloane’s partnership with African arms dealer Kazari Bomani, or even Jack brutally avoiding the horror of Simon Walker explaining his daughter’s sexual proclivities. The problem is that Repercussions suggests much and actually explains little, a common problem during this season of Alias particularly. What could have been an episode which blew open key points of revelation across the missing time period, or contextualised certain character threads, remains maddeningly unresolved even for Alias.

It is disposable and transitory, part of the necessary plot mechanisms of the season, enlivened primarily by one or two character interactions and set pieces that provide enjoyment.